We have fifteen days (HOLY CRAP JUST FIFTEEN DAYS) before Dragon Age: Inquisition comes out and I lose all contact with the outside world. In order to hype myself up a bit more–to the point where I think I’m losing my mind with how obsessed I am with this universe–I’ve been replaying Dragon Age II. Before I get castrated by the shitzillion fucktards who always come out of the woodwork whenever Dragon Age II is mentioned, no, I didn’t hate the game. I’m near the 400-hour mark on Dragon Age II. I love this game so much, and sometimes I don’t know why. I’ve been of the entirely unorthodox opinion that Dragon Age: Origins was overhyped from the beginning, and while I enjoyed that game too, I didn’t get involved in it like I have DA2. To this day I still don’t understand why everyone likes DA:O so much. Sure, the game is polished like no other, but apart from the fascinating world it presents, the content within is pretty unremarkable. The graphics style always bothered me–it came across as both bland and unrealistic. By that I mean it just doesn’t feel real; it’s more like you’re watching a storybook unfold. Maybe that was the point, but it just doesn’t feel like something positive to me. The ways he characters move, look and behave feels so stilted, somehow lacking in emotion. Then you actually get into combat and you want to kill yourself: oh look, another twenty seconds of auto-attacking while your rogue takes ten of those seconds just to get across the battlefield to the enemy. Wait, why did I even bring a rogue? Oh, for traps. That’s it. Otherwise I’d just bring three mages and a tank and kill everything with one hand tied behind my back. Then I’ll go wade through the generic storyline with a cadre of characters I barely care about. I’ve concluded that DA:O is an object lesson in how execution and polish can cover a multitude of sins, while DA2 is an object lesson in how good fundamentals can’t necessarily do the same.
At its core, DA2 was a better game than DA:O. Storyline, characterization, combat, thematic coherence, etc., everything was conceived much better from the ground up. More than anything else, Hawke’s adventures put the “role” back into “role-playing game.” It did this better than Mass Effect, I think, which is high praise indeed. The story excelled at putting you in Hawke’s shoes, at making you feel like this refugee building their way up from nothing and becoming important, with all the consequences that has. Act 1 has you poor and weak, running around Kirkwall doing menial tasks as befitting a noble whose house has fallen from grace. The characters you met along the way got swept up in that story and became crucial parts of the tapestry you were building. Aveline, Fenris, Varric, Isabela, Merrill, Bethany, Carver (who?), and even Anders (hiss) all felt like real people you had a deep connection with. Some of Bioware’s best characters and moments ever come from this game, particularly Aveline and Varric. Then combat in DA2 proved far more interactive and engaging, with each class becoming much better defined with strengths and weaknesses you could appreciate and build a party around. Something people also fail to appreciate is that Bioware took a risk with DA2. While EA might have thought otherwise, it’s clear DA2 was a conscious departure from its predecessor. Bioware wanted to try something different: they wanted to work with a narrative structure they hadn’t really done before. They could have just made a money-grabbing sequel-copy to DA:O and the fanboys would have bought it up so long as they polished it right and checked off all the boxes, but they didn’t. Anyway, all in all, DA2 was a good game. So why wasn’t it a great game?
Well, DA2 got rushed out the door, and it shows. We all know about the One True Cave. I’ll first remark that Skyrim had One True Cave too: it just took twenty million copies sold for people to realize it. That’s why I go back to the lesson in polish and execution: DA2 only had the One True Cave and crammed every second quest into it: combined with the constrained scope of Kirkwall and the world you were set in, you caught on pretty quickly, so unless were already taken in by the game’s events and other systems, like I was, you’d get frustrated and bored in no time. Contrarily, Skyrim had a larger world that maintained the illusion of novelty, so your mind didn’t really notice or care it was wandering through the exact same cavern a billion times on random side-quests. A few years removed, people suddenly realized that the Skyrim released at launch sucked and that all the hype surrounding it was dumb. Hey, too late now, idiots: Bethesda has all your money, and I’m pretty sure your critical credibility just flew out the window as well. You really don’t care if companies milk games; you only care if it’s a game you don’t like. People rag on EA for releasing Madden every year and milking the shit out of it, but there are some legitimate reasons for that, such as roster changes and the ever-changing world of American football that six billion people don’t understand. Meanwhile, Bethesda has released the exact same game three times in a row, and people worship them. Apart from graphical fidelity and some minor changes to stats and talents, Morrowind and Skyrim, two games released almost ten years apart from each other, are indistinguishable. Same bland talking heads all voiced by the same dozen people, same horrible melee combat, same unexpected messiah narrative structure, same sidequest system, same musical themes, even the same goddamn opening. If I have to sit through one more sequence where I’m a prisoner of the Empire being dragged off somewhere…
Wait, what was the original point of this post? Oh yeah, I’m playing through Dragon Age II again. It’s been a little while, but this sums up my reaction to everything that happens:
More particularly, I’m focusing on the Templars and how the Circle of Magi is utterly broken. Seriously, it’s so dumb how everything within this system operates. “We’re afraid of mages, so we’ll lock them up and have them watched over by drug-addicted zealots with no effective oversight or recourse, all while teaching them their charges are one step away from killing everyone. What could possibly go wrong?” An excellent question, my lovelies. In the first Act, the Grand Cleric, who possesses ultimate authority over the mages and the Templars alike, says to Hawke with a straight face: “It is not my role to form judgments on her [Knight-Commander Meredith’s] character.” Um, what did you just say? Because that’s wrong, you cow: that is exactly your role. You are supposed to be overseeing what the Templars are doing, otherwise this system cannot function. Don’t you realize the kind of people the Templars are? They’re brutal sociopaths at best. You need people smarter than them to make sure–oh, fuck it. You die in two more acts, Elthina, and it’s your own damn fault. Anyway, it seems like everything the Templars do is hilarious. Cullen says he’ll let a recruit, who was captured by crazy mages with some stupid plan to forcibly possess some Templars with demons, be promoted to full knighthood if he doesn’t show any signs of possession after ten years. Ten fucking years? Really? You’re going to condemn this poor guy to a life of poverty and menial labor just like that? Are you stupid? Let’s presume he is possessed, even though it’s clear Hawke arrived in time before the crazy mages managed to do anything to him. Hey, Cullen: spirits and demons don’t exactly have a concept of time, probably because they exist in a realm where there is no concept of time. If this recruit really has a demon om-nom-noming on his soul right now, all it’ll do is just wait until you no longer suspect his host. Boom: party time, baby. Do you not study the basic principles of magic and demons? If you don’t, why are you in charge of overseeing mages in the first place? Isn’t basic education on this stuff kind of important for you to ensure you’re doing your job correctly? Do you even care? No, of course not. Every second Templar is either an obvious rapist or a clueless fucktard that couldn’t care less about things.
This extends not only to DA2 itself, but all the books and such we see beyond it. In Dragon Age: Asunder, Lord Seeker Lambert is a hopeless douchebag who wants to kill every mage he sees, and this is the guy in charge of the organization that’s theoretically in place to step in when the Templars don’t do their jobs? How does that sound like a good idea? Why were the Seekers even brought in to begin with? Oh yeah, we haven’t even talked about Madame Psychopathy Herself, Knight-Commander Meredith, who gets the 9:37 Dragon Award for Leader of the Year. How this fucking moron managed to acquire such a position of authority is beyond me. She should have been removed the moment she started making mages Tranquil because reasons, which is the most flagrant violation of Chantry law ever. Mages who have passed their Harrowing cannot be made Tranquil. Oh, and she denies mages appearances at court, locks them up in their rooms, and immediately suspects anyone who runs away from her nightmarish prison-state a practitioner of blood magic. In Act 3, you hunt down some mages, two of them who do turn out to be blood mages, and you find out that they both resorted to blood magic because the fucking Templars treated them like shit. Meredith even suspects the third mage, some hopeless virgin who just wants to get laid, and casually decides if he’ll keep his life or not. Fuck you. Finally she just goes into batshit mode and orders the execution of every mage in the city after Anders blows up the Kirkwall Chantry, even though the terrorist responsible for it is right there in front of themof all and admits to acting entirely on his own with no help or support from the Circle whatsoever. Her justification? “The people of Kirkwall will want retribution for this.” Mmkay. I believe you, Knight-Commander, if “people of Kirkwall” means “me, Meredith Coocoopants.” Pretty sure the people of Kirkwall don’t even know what the fuck just happened, as you let all but three seconds pass between the explosion and your casual decision to commit mass murder. It’s almost as if you were just waiting for an excuse to kill all these mages anyway. The mages even offer her complete and unconditional surrender, but NOPE. She’s just gonna kill everyone. Hey, Cullen: you might want to stop her. Are you going to do something, man? Gonna, you know, point out how weird it is she’s lost her fucking mind? I dunno. Anything would work at this point.
What’s most annoying, though, is that everyone treats the problem of mages as some unsolvable dilemma of the ages, when it’s really just a simple matter of civil rights and secular oversight. As it is in Thedas, mages live within a system of slavery. They’re locked up in the Circles their whole lives and are only dragged out when the Chantry needs them to fry some Qunari or darkspawn. The social contract between them and the rest of civilization is completely one-sided, with society asking everything of them while giving them nothing in return except the nominal right to existence. Oh yeah, that’ll keep them happy. Sure. The first thing you could do is not have them watched over by religious zealots. Bioware has even glossed over the obvious sins of the Templar Order, much to my chagrin. I can’t imagine just how much rape and abuse has gone on within it for nearly a thousand years. We’re still dealing with the issue of widespread rape and sexual harassment within our militaries even in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, mages will always need some system of oversight over them. To me, this is the most fascinating element of the Dragon Age setting: the question of what to do with people who are naturally separate from the rest of society. The innate potential of mages far exceeds that of their fellow men. How do you balance the desire to use this potential for the betterment of mankind against the threat of them using it against everyone else? It’s a captivating question for me, and one that opens up some interesting paths to explore. I really hope Bioware doesn’t drop the ball with Inquisition. Everything seems like it’ll be great, but then again, so did Mass Effect 3, and we all remember how that turned out.
We’ll find out in fifteen days. In the meantime, I’ll go knife Anders and Meredith again. Unlike the One True Cave, that shit never gets old.